By Paul Kiefer
Members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission (CPC), one of three city-level police accountability bodies, expected to spend an hour of their Wednesday morning meeting asking questions of Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief Lesley Cordner, who appeared at their last meeting to present an array of changes the department has proposed for its crowd management and use-of-force policies. Those proposed changes include the creation of a special team to investigate use of force at protests and allowing officers to use pepper-ball launchers to target individual protesters they believe are breaking the law as an alternative to blast balls, which can hurt protesters standing nearby.
But Cordner’s second appearance before the CPC did not go as planned; in fact, she didn’t appear at all. Instead, a post appeared on SPD’s Blotter blog on Wednesday night inviting questions and suggestions from the public about the proposed revisions.
SPD first announced plans to revamp some of its policies in a blog post in late October, responding to both public criticism of the department’s response to Black Lives Matter protests and recommendations from the city’s police oversight agencies, including the CPC. In that post, SPD said the policy changes are intended to reduce the visible police presence at protests “when safe and feasible”; to ensure that journalists, legal observers and medics can work freely during protests; to prioritize de-escalation; and to create “new strategies to address individuals taking unlawful actions in otherwise lawful crowds.” The post also claimed that the department had already made “significant changes” to their crowd management tactics; the policy revisions would theoretically cement those changes.
Any proposed revisions to SPD’s policies have to undergo a review and revision process that involves the CPC and other oversight bodies, namely the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Department of Justice, which oversees reforms at SPD through an arrangement called a consent decree. SPD didn’t share the draft policy revisions with the CPC until shortly before Cordner’s introductory presentation at their meeting on December 2, so commissioners sent a list of questions about the policy to SPD on Tuesday, December 15, in advance of Cordner’s scheduled appearance the following day.
The questions were uniformly critical of SPD’s proposed policy changes. Commissioners saw little overlap between SPD’s proposals and the list of policy recommendations they issued in August. One of the questions pointed out that the revised policies would still allow SPD to use blast balls, which the CPC has pressed the department to abandon since 2016. Another noted that the revisions would actually add a weapon—a pepper-ball launcher, which is akin to a paintball gun—to SPD’s arsenal instead of removing weapons. (SPD told PubliCola on Thursday that some specialty units were already allowed to use pepper-ball launchers; the new policy would only expand the number of officers authorized to use them). A third asked why the revised policies didn’t raise the requirements for SPD to issue a dispersal order at protests, despite both the CPC and OIG raising concerns about unreasonable dispersal orders since last summer.
After SPD received the CPC’s questions on Tuesday morning, Cordner replied that she wouldn’t appear before the commission to answer them. “It seems we perhaps had signals crossed as to the purpose of our appearance at tomorrow’s meeting,” she wrote. “Our purpose in attending tomorrow’s meeting was not to discuss the policy in substance, but rather in form—to clear up any ambiguities or questions commissioners may have had with respect to how the policies are written or organized.”
Cordner said SPD was only willing to discuss the substance of their proposed policy revisions—and any changes to them—after the OIG and OPA weigh in on the proposals in January; she also claimed that discussing the policies in depth with the CPC would be out of line with the review process established as a result of the federal consent decree. In a Thursday morning email, SPD Public Information Officer Randall Huserik told PubliCola that the consent decree itself doesn’t prohibit SPD from answering the CPC’s questions on Wednesday, but that the department prefers to adhere to “protocols” for the review process developed since Seattle entered the consent decree agreement with the DOJ in 2012. He added that the department sent a letter to the CPC on Wednesday night responding to some of their questions; PubliCola is waiting to receive a copy of that letter.
Most of the CPC commissioners seemed baffled by Cordner’s decision not to appear at their meeting. “I’ll be honest—this is frustrating,” said commissioner Alina Santillan. In Cordner’s absence, the CPC discussed the possibility of holding a public forum to review the proposed policy revisions with SPD, members of the city council, and possibly the OIG, OPA and representatives from the City Attorney’s Office. If SPD refused to take part in such a forum, several commissioners—including CPC co-chair Reverend Harriet Walden—suggested the CPC could hold the forum without them.
SPD’s December 16 blog post made it clear that the department wants to take public outreach into its own hands instead of relying on the CPC. However, it also specifies that the department “will not be able to respond individually to each comment or suggestion received”; instead, SPD will take responsibility for sharing community comments and questions with the CPC, the OIG and the OPA. According to the blog post, SPD and the accountability bodies will “consider” the public’s questions and comments when they discuss policy adjustments and changes.
SPD will accept public feedback on the policy revisions until January 8th, when they expect the OIG and OPA to submit their own reactions to the draft revisions.